After two jet-lagged, sleepless nights in New York, I slept at last,
last night at the Molly Pitcher Inn in Red Bank, N.J., and felt
almost hung-over from having actually slept. Glad I got the sleep,
though. Today was my first big design meeting on “Macbeth” at the
Two River Theater.
Aaron Posner, the director with whom I conceived this version of the
show has an observation he likes to make. Shakespeare always deals
with the days you’d want to tell your grandchildren about (if you
live to tell the tale). Shakespeare writes about the night you went
to a dance and fell madly in love with the daughter of the man your
father most hated. The day the ghost of your murdered father told
you to take revenge on your incestuous stepfather.
Or in Macbeth’s case, the day he (a) won a battle against a traitor
almost singlehanded; (b) became the darling of the king and got – as
a present! – a whole new castle and domain; (c) encountered strange
beings who predicted he would become king; (d) had the king of
Scotland as a houseguest; (e) assisted and egged on by his wife,
murdered that king and became the ultimate traitor himself; and (f)
seized the crown. That’s quite a bit of excitement for less than one
calendar day. It’s what fans of “24” might call a Jack Bauer day.
What makes something a Jack Bauer/Shakespeare day? It’s not hard to
name some of the qualities: You feel utterly alive. Everything is
in vivid colors and contrasts. Even the smells are stronger. It’s a
day that brings out the best in you. You are strong, smart, brave,
wily, and beautiful.
It’s a big day.
A few days before our meeting, I’d attended a play with Stephen
Sondheim. The play was beautifully staged and acted. It was funny
and the audience, and Sondheim sitting next to me, laughed a lot. At
intermission he and I went outside for a breath of fresh, cold, early
spring air. “They’re wonderful actors,” he said. “It’s funny and
very well done. It’s just not big enough for me. I want my plays
larger than life. This one is just life-size.”
Sometimes you don’t realize you’ve had a Shakespeare day until
afterwards, when you write about it or tell it to friends. Sometimes
it’s not until you think back on a big day that you realize that the
plumber was really the god Zeus in disguise, testing whether mortals
can recognize the divine.
This little production of “Macbeth” feels – and I have no evidence to
back me other than intuition – as though it will be a Jack Bauer
year. It’s a forty year dream, that began in fantasies as a teenager,
so it’s such a huge, hormone-amped dream that I think even failure
might have a nobility about it. I’d love it to succeed, but I’d
never forgive myself for not trying.
So as an experiment, I’m documenting at least the first steps (it
might turn out to be a bust, and all the footage just trash) on
video. The documentary idea might well fizzle after I see what we’ve
shot. It might be too expensive to make sense. But, for the moment,
I’m determined not to let these moments slip away.
So with the help of some of my managerial friends, I found a NY
videography team (who did some work on “The Aristocrats”) to
videotape the first big session with the design team. He asked us to
have our meeting in the theater lobby, where natural light pours in
from panoramic windows between huge metal-strapped beams. It’s not
the space we planned to meet in, but if this day is to be documented
as larger than life, it might as well look that way.
At 2 p.m. our group gathered around the blond wood table. At the end
of the table was Aaron Posner, director, thirties, black hair – the
buoyant, beaming captain of our little ship. Aaron’s philosophy is
that every contribution is welcome; costume designers may comment on
lighting and lighting may comment on acting. You have to be very
secure and confident to adopt such a policy. Aaron is.
I sat to Aaron’s left and to my left, Matt Holtzclaw, tall, boyish,
28, student of Jamy Ian Swiss. He’s married one year and in love
with his wife and the world and magic and horror movies. He’s an
expert in Grand Guignol effects, and a very fine magician. He’s in
charge of violence and will be collaborating on magic design. To his
left, Andrew Martini, the theater’s tech director; owner of a
successful international company that supplies lighting to commercial
ventures, Andrew took the job in regional theater to satisfy his
passion for “real” art. Strong, smart, and quiet.
To Aaron’s right, directly across from me, Thom, the lighting
designer, rumpled 26-year-old whiz kid from Yale, in a sweater, dark
bedhead hair, teeth stained from cigarettes. Next to him, Dan
Conway, set designer, forties, ruddy, round-faced in a sky blue
sweater and a laugh to match; Dan teaches set design at a Washington,
D.C. college. Having the teaching job allows him to design in
regional theater, and to use his design projects as teaching tools.
Next to Dan, Devon Painter, one of Aaron’s favorite costume
designers, a redhead with the look of a rakish Irish lass.
Aaron introduced the project and I argued that doing the magic
described in the play deceptively allows the audience to share
Macbeth’s world riddled with superstition, uncertainty, and
“Equivocation” is a key for me. It means using an expression that
seems to say one thing but actually means another. It’s one of the
core ideas of the play.
Typical stage mind-readers equivocate. “What I am doing,” they say,
“is not supernatural. Any of you have the same powers I do. I’ve
just spent the time to develop my natural gifts.” What they actually
mean is, “What I’m doing is lying and tricking you,” but their
equivocation makes it sound as though they’re saying, “Mind reading
is a natural gift we all share.” Thus they satisfy their critics and
conscience (if any), while conveying and capitalizing on a lie.
Macbeth’s world is full of equivocation. Prophecies that sound
hopeful have a second, catastrophic meaning. “Fair is foul and foul
is fair,” say Macbeth’s supernatural advisors in the first moments of
the story. Lies and hallucinations abound. “Function is smothered in
surmise,” Macbeth observes, “and nothing is but what is not.”
Our design and magic team’s assignment is to create that equivocal
Aaron Posner, the director, asked beaming Dan Conway, the set
designer, to jump in and begin the show-and-tell. Dan brought out a
portfolio of computer print-outs of art he’d gathered, about a
hundred 18” x 24” sheets of images taken from books and Internet
sources, all the things that had caught his intuition on the basis of
our email discussions. For an hour we passed the paintings, photos,
bits of architecture, shots taken from movies, from prisons,
madhouses, and ancient Scotland, and we talked about them, pointing
out what we loved what did not move us.
We found ourselves drawn to pictures of high places where a man could
be trapped, as King Macbeth is, alone at the end of the story, and by
cages, pikes, ironwork, industrial doors, peeling plaster.
Then Devon showed us costumes. Here we were drawn to simple, coarse-
textured outdoor wear, particularly the simple, sexy lines that are
of certain European high fashion. Some of the illusory stuff
appealed, too: the clothing that simulates exposed breasts made us
all grin. Devon thinks man-skirts are pretty hot, but Aaron is
rightly skeptical of something too diagrammatically Scottish.
Now and then, as we looked at these pictures, I would exclaim,
“Macbeth! Good luck!” And I’d whistle. Old theater superstition says
that saying “Macbeth” or “Good luck” or whistling will bring terrible
bad fortune on a show. Theater folk will say, “The Scottish Play,”
just to avoid jinxing the activity by uttering “Macbeth.” Penn and I
have enjoyed torturing actors and stagehands with this since we first
began to work. After an hour or two, Aaron, Devon, and Dan gave up
and started to enjoy uttering the forbidden name. But lighting
designer Thom will still say it only in context.
“A really weird thing about Macbeth,” Thom said, “is that he’s a
professional killing machine. That’s what he does for a living.
He’s just been rewarded as a hero for killing traitors. And now, all
of a sudden, when he kills this one old guy, the king, he’s a monster
and a traitor himself. That’s a pretty complicated moral position,
isn’t it?” Equivocal, one might say.
So our lighting designer illuminates not just things and people, but
fundamental themes of the play.
Weirdly, for April, it snowed briefly, and the camera crew was eager
to catch the snow. Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth.
Aaron hates horror movies. It’s almost impossible to get him to
watch one. It’s not that they don’t work on him. They work too
well. He has no defense mechanisms and they just terrify him. Doing
this show is a huge step for him.
So it was fun watching him squirm as Dan showed us a video his
students had prepared, featuring film imagery they felt echoed
“Macbeth.” Matt offered a choice clip from “Session 9,” a horror
movie set in an abandoned mental hospital, and featuring a
disturbing, fetishistic torture chair, which Matt thought might be a
nice model for our throne.
He played us the sequence of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre, where the sexy
young couple comes on a pretty spring day, amidst sun-dappled
sunflowers, to the farmhouse where we know they are destined to be
butchered. I remarked how well Shakespeare had ripped that off (four
hundred years earlier) by having King Duncan arrive at the castle
where he is about to be slashed to death, and remark on the castle’s
sweet air and chirpy birds.
We’d been at it for three hours and were ripe for a coffee break.
So, we went to Wawa. Tom loves Wawa. He had missed lunch. So he
had a sandwich. And cigarettes. Everyone chugged coffee. We
returned to the theater. Aaron brought down a plate of cookies from
the office pantry.
Aaron asked me to talk technically about the magic. So I gave a
brief course in “black art” and mirror masking. I showed pictures in
books I’d brought and photocopies I’d made.
I went through the show, trick by trick: Weird Sisters appear, Weird
Sisters vanish; dagger appears, vanishes, reappears covered with
blood, points the way to the king’s chamber, vanishes; ghost of
Banquo appears and vanishes twice; three apparitions (bloody talking
fetus, severed head in armor, live child with glowing eyes) emerge
from a cauldron, cauldron vanishes, Weird Sisters vanish; Lady
Macbeth’s hallucinates blood on her hands.
Now we were getting into it. Deep. Talking practicalities and
angles. I wanted everyone to leave with enough practical knowledge of
magic that we could talk comfortably via email for the next month.
At Johnny Thompson’s suggestion, Andrew Martini had prepared a setup
onstage for looking at images projected on smoke. We bundled
ourselves into the auditorium and were awed to see how beautiful –
and deeply eerie – that looked.
We returned to the table and everything was getting very intense and
How do we make the Weird Sisters the equivocal creatures Shakespeare
describes: wild, withered, androgynous things so unearthly and
shriveled that Macbeth can’t tell whether they’re alive or dead? Do
we want the set dark – to follow the language? Or light – to force
the audience to create the darkness in their own minds? If dark,
what kind of dark? Black on black and let Thom’s light wizardry
create the color we want when we need it…?
There is nothing in the world that I love more than creative
collaboration. And to be in the presence of these amazing artists,
all joyfully planning how to scare the pee out of an audience with a
four hundred year old horror story, well, the only word I can think
of is ecstasy. Plain and simple. Ecstasy.
We carried the conversation – and our videography team – along with
us to dinner at The Brothers Pizza and restaurant. Red and white
plastic tablecloths. Jersey accents. Burgers. Tortellini. Chicken
Caesar salad. Dan’s was the last dish delivered (“Who would have
thought that this restaurant would rely on fresh kill for my veal
Parm’ platter?”). From all the eating and talking Aaron began
seriously, Heimlich-maneuver seriously, choking. Macbeth, Macbeth,
Back at the theater afterwards to finish up. We were newlyweds
determined to get pregnant before we had to part for a few months. As
our final objective, we agreed to choose a few images everybody
loved. A shrieking, abstract wrought iron fence, something as ‘twere
out of Edvard Munch. A massive “Texas Chainsaw” sliding door in
Eastern State Penitentiary. And a vaulted underground room in the
present day Cawdor Castle (Macbeth, in the play, becomes Thane of
Cawdor). In the center of the room, encircled by a 5-foot-high
wrought iron fence, an ancient dead tree emerges through the floor
and out the ceiling.
Dan was sketching from our discussion and was about to pack up. He
had a long drive ahead, back to Washington, D.C. Suddenly I looked
at his sketch and an idea flashed into my head. I asked if he could
stay another five minutes. Then I drew something – something I’d
rather not disclose to you just yet – that could make it possible for
the apparitions from the cauldron and the final vanish of the Weird
Sisters to be a truly stunning sequence. Everybody liked the idea.
The last drop of the day’s thinking contained the answer I’d been
searching for all day.
Our group was now officially brain dead. The tireless videographers
turned off their cameras and packed up their tripods. Aaron – who
had done a full day’s work before any of our meetings – looked nearly
unconscious. Dan, bleary-eyed, filled his coffee cup for the long
drive. Matt, Devon, and Tom bundled up warm and headed for the train
I bounded back to my hotel in the chilly air and couldn’t fall asleep
for the next four hours. I’d been looking forward to this meeting
for forty years. And it’s hard to unwind at the end of a Jack Bauer